There is plenty of research outlining the benefits of kids playing outside, gettin’ dirty, and maybe even, (gulp) eating a little dirt. It has been shown that exposure to “dirt” in outdoor settings can improve their immune system because of one underlying fact: you are exposing your kids to organisms that allow and require their immune system to practice responding to them in the appropriate manner.
The rates of allergies, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal (gut) issues are rising in our country, and unfortunately, children make up a large portion of this increase. What’s the reason? Well, there’s no way to say definitively. But, there is research to back up and suggest that our heavy use of anti-bacterial products – that in turn leads to underdeveloped immune systems in our children – may be one prominent reason.
Take a look in your cabinets, underneath the kitchen sink, on the counters. What do you see? I used to find numerous bottles of anti-bacterial soap, hand sanitizer by the diapers and in the diaper bag. But is this really doing us good? In short, the answer is no.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should feed your kid dirt for dinner tonight; nor does it mean you should allow your kids to run around, licking bathroom floors all in the name of improving their immune systems. What it DOES mean is that you don’t have to sanitize every little thing your child may come in contact with. You don’t have to ensure an ultra-clean, sanitary, dirt free environment for your children at all times. It’s about balance, and knowing when it’s ok (on the playground) and when it’s not ok (at the hospital).
Teaching your children to wash their hands after going to the bathroom is an important behavior to learn. But making sure that your child never touches their mouth unless you’ve wiped their hands clean? Maybe not so much. Let them, wait, no, encourage them to go outside, help you in the garden, get their hands dirty and have fun doing it!
Mary Ruebush, Ph.D. is an immunologist who outlined her views on the topic. Some of her key points included a 5-step immune-system-building process that parents should follow:
- Let kids play in the dirt.
- Wash with regular soap, not antibacterial (there are plenty of good bacteria that are killed with anti-bacterial soap).
- Keep your vaccines up-to-date (the artificial way to expose your kids to things that are not encountered naturally, to allow their immune system to create antibodies to fight off future illnesses).
- Take care of yourself (adequate sleep, staying hydrated, eating well, and avoiding stress).
- Common sense (know when you really need to wash their hands and sanitize, and give yourself a break if it’s not that important).
The take home message is this: “it’s so important for children to develop their immune responses. And without exposure, this cannot happen”.
Want to read more?
There is also a wonderful book, recently published, titled “Dirt is Good”, by Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight. I have to admit, I was already a believer in letting kids get dirty, letting them stick that dirty pacifier back in their mouth after falling on the ground, and doing other “kid” things that, well, only kids are gonna do (i.e. eat that sucker hiding in their car seat that is covered in dog hair and who knows what else). But I had to get this book and find out some of the research and reasoning behind it, so I’m not just some crazy crunchy Colorado mom! They do a great job at describing all the different areas of our lives that are affected, broken down into chapters of life and focusing on children. The book also includes sections on antibiotics and probiotics, which is incredibly interesting to me – as I work in the health care field and see many antibiotic resistance strains of illnesses, and the repercussions. It’s an easy to read book, giving you the details in a way that we can all understand. NPR also wrote a short summary on the book, and you can’t go wrong with anything endorsed by our trusted friends at National Public Radio.
But I’m not here to sell you on this book (after all, I don’t receive any commission!). I’m here to spread the word about why I truly believe dirt is good. For your kids, for my kids, for everyone who is just a little too OCD about their purell: Let’s do our part to ensure our kids can be the healthiest they can be. This one little thing can make a big difference in your child’s immune system, decreasing health issues in the future, and, it may make your life a little easier with less clean up time!
What can you do?
Let your kids go outside, play in the backyard with dirt, rocks, water, and plants. Help your little ones make mud pies, dig holes, catch frogs and insects and GET DIRTY.
Start a garden. Gardening has many benefits in and of itself, but this is the perfect way to encourage your kids to get dirty while also helping with something meaningful and worthwhile– teaching them about hard work, being self-sustainable, and taking care of the environment. In the end, you’ll get some yummy fruits, veggies, and herbs out of it!
Hold off on the sanitizer. Throw out the anti-bacterial soaps and sprays. It’s ok to have a slightly messy home, where kids encounter a little dirt here and there. It’s good for them.
In our home, we make a point to go outside at least once a day. Dress appropriately and you can go out in any weather. We have plants inside and outside of the house, and a small pot of soil with “gardening” tools for the littles. We wash our hands before eating meals, but also encourage eating straight from the vine.
Bacteria is EVERYWHERE, and in a game of you vs. bacteria, bacteria will always win. They have strength in numbers. But that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it is a pretty darn good thing. Do a quick google search on probiotics and you will find all the different ways this good bacteria can help gut health and how it’s linked to boosting your immune system, supporting oral and skin health, managing mood and weight loss, and much more. Let’s change the way we think about bacteria, and stay up-to-date with how it can help protect you and your family.